Feeling a little bit overwhelmed?


Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Why does sometimes, it all feel like a little too much, and a little too challenging?

Like everyone, I sometimes feel a little overwhelmed by those little everyday stressors (note the lack of posts earlier this year!). Competing demands of deadlines, work life balance and the general too and fro of life can sometimes seem a little much. Why? And what can we do about it?

Why are some days are just better than others?

Sometimes, it can seem that everything is lined up against us, and the problems all build up. Then, something changes and everything seems alright again. Similarly, we have all experienced times when we have faced difficult situations and thrived. Whats’ the difference? Part of it revolves around how we perceive the stressors around us.

Why we sometimes feel overwhelmed.

The biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat [BPSM]1 suggests these differences in performance outcomes are in part due to the motivational state we are in when we undertake the task. It argues that we can experience states of challenge or threat. Challenge is linked to improved performance, a tendency to be proactive and more positive emotions. In contrast, threat is associated with worse performance, negative affect and more conservative approaches to reaching a goal. Feeling temporarily overwhelmed is a symptom of psychological threat.

The bio-psychosocial model of challenge and threat

Challenge and threat states have differing physiological effects also. When we are engaged in a task and in a state of challenge, we experience activation in the sympathetic adrenal medullar system (part of our stress response system). This leads to a rise in adrenaline. Adrenaline is great stuff. It readies our body for intense short term action – delivering increased oxygen to muscles, dilating our pupils to increase visual sensitivity and reading access to quick release energy supplies. It also makes us sweat (great for when we feel threatened, less good on a date!). We also experience activation of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal system, releasing the stress hormone cortisol. This moderates the effects of adrenaline, and prepares us for longer periods of stress. This has the added benefit of you preventing you from going too much into overdrive due to the adrenaline, and moves your blood back into your core (away from extremities which may be damaged). These are all useful responses when facing, say a lion, but less useful for more prolonged stressors, like facing an impending exam (more on exams and challenge/threat here).
States of challenge and threat (and, in particular, their physiological effects) are relatively short lived – they arise when we are in a demanding situation, and fall away when we are not. However, if our system is flooded with coristol too regularly, we run the risk of health complications such as diabetes and heart disease, and generally poor immune responses. We also feel better (and perform more optimally) when challenged. So, generally, challenge good, threat bad!

Challenged or Threatened?

What determines if we experience a state of challenge or threat? The BPSM suggests it the balance of the resources we feel we can bring to bear on a situation, against the level of demands it presents. Resources include factors such as our experience and expertise, the support of others and having a high value goal. Demands include factors such as situational uncertainty and perceived danger. If our perceived resources outweigh perceived demands, we enter a state of challenge. If demands outweigh resources, we experience threat.
So, if we are feeling stressed, we can either reduce perceived task demands (by eliminating them in reality or by reframing why they mean) or by increasing our resources….

What resources do I have?

Resources can take various forms in the BPSM – they can include being confident you have the skills or knowledge you need (issue related knowledge), certainty about what will happen and, importantly, social support. So, taking steps to make yourself more prepared, talking with supportive others and remembering all the things we do well.

What demands can I reduce?

Are there any stressors we can take out of our lives? Any commitments we can let go for a bit? Can we see things in a different light to how we did before? If we take some things less seriously (or keep them in better perspective) they may act as less of a demand, leading to more positive appraisals.

Managing the balancing act

Life often throws us mini-curve balls. If you are feeling a bit overwhelmed, try a simple exercise: Write down all your resources. Keep adding them when they come to you and, periodically, check through. Hopefully you’ll see how much you have going for you, and things will feel a bit easier. You can also get some more sleep (things always seem easier when you are rested), do some exercise or hang out with some friends. Also, remember, in a years time things will likely be very different! All these things can help stop you going from feeling ‘a bit overwhelmed’ to something more serious, and let you focus on what is important in life…

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  1. Blascovich, J., & Tomaka, J. (1996). The biopsychosocial model of arousal regulation. Advances in experimental social psychology, 28, 1-52. 

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